Who has led the most interesting life?

In recent times, that is.  Devon Zuegel asks:

Who would you name as a contender for having led the most interesting life in the last 100 years?

Keynes pops to mind as one contender.  He was a top-tier intellect and economist, he was closely connected to the arts, had plenty of brilliant Bloomsbury people to chat with, married a ballerina, played a major role in politics several times, and he participated in several critical and indeed formative moments of history (Treaty of Versailles, fiscal policy, Bretton Woods).  He experienced both world wars (no one said “interesting” has to be good!).  Still, he didn’t travel enough to be a slam dunk (I can’t quite bring myself to write “nor did he have the internet.”)

How about Bill Clinton?  He was president twice, oversaw the 1990s, has indeed traveled the world, and known many of the most interesting people of his lifespan.  He also has had rather, um…diverse…experiences in one realm of life.  And he married Hillary.

Paul McCartney was a Beatle, wrote amazing songs and hung out with John Lennon, had domestic bliss with Linda for a few decades, raised lots of kids, was successful as a businessman, and also has a history of…um…diverse experiences.  But did he smoke too much pot?

This list of “best lives” includes Hugh Hefner, Tyra Banks, and Elon Musk.  Here is one Quora answer for “most interesting”:

Personally, I find the following people intriguing: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Marie Curie, Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan, Socrates/Aristotle/Plato, Samori Toure, Nelson Mandela, Michel de Nostredame. It’s a long list. There are even some historical figures that I do not admire, but would like to know more about – people such as Joseph Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Judas Isacriot, among so many others.

I hope you are not offended if I rule some of those lives out on grounds of insufficient length, or too much time spent in prison.  Here is a list of interesting writers’ lives, topped by Ernest Hemingway.

Contrarian but not crazy answers would cite the person who raised the greatest number of children, the person who lived the longest in decent health, “whoever you are,” and the person who has traveled the most, at least adjusting for the quality of the trips (working on an oil tanker may not count).

Is it possible for a very famous person to win this designation?  Their very fame limits the possible range of experiences they have, and perhaps at some margin the consumption of additional status and adulation, however fun (?) it may be, just isn’t all that interesting.  Can Paul McCartney or Bill Clinton go out in public much?  Is the real answer someone most people never have heard of?

Who is your nominee?

Markets in everything

I am surprised issues of this kind have taken so long to surface:

Amazon is investigating claims that employees accepted bribes to disclose confidential data that would give sellers that use its marketplace a competitive advantage. The company confirmed the investigation following a report in the Wall Street Journal that Amazon employees, working through brokers, have sold internal sales data, the email addresses of product reviewers, and the ability to delete negative reviews and restore banned accounts. “We are conducting a thorough investigation of these claims,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.

These practices seem to be a particular problem in China, though not only.  Here is more from Shannon Bond at the FT.  Here is further coverage at Verge: “The WSJ also reports that it costs roughly $300 to take down a bad review, with brokers “[demanding] a five-review minimum” per transaction.”

The future of football, revisited

On one hand:

Ratings for regular-season games fell 17 percent over the past two years, according to Nielsen, and after one week of play in the new season, viewership has been flat. February marked the third-straight year of audience decline for the Super Bowl and the smallest audience since 2009. Youth participation in tackle football, meanwhile, has declined by nearly 22 percent since 2012 in the face of an emerging scientific consensus that the game destroys the brains of its players.

On the other hand, how many other focal experiences are left:

Yet even a middling franchise, the Carolina Panthers, sold in May for a league record  $2.3 billion. Advertisers spent a record $4.6 billion for spots during NFL games last season, as well as an all-time high $5.24 million per 30 seconds of Super Bowl time. The reason is clear: In 2017, 37 of the top 50 broadcasts on U.S. television were NFL games, including four of the top five.

The Green Bay Packers, the only NFL team that shares financial statements with the public, has posted revenue increases for 15 straight seasons. Leaguewide revenue has grown more than 47 percent since 2012. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s official target is $25 billion in revenue by 2027, or roughly 6 percent annual growth.

“The business of the NFL is very strong and continues to get stronger,” says Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., and an unofficial surrogate for league owners.

But what will happen if the number of brain damage cases continues to rise?  Here is more from Ira Boudway and Eben Novy-Williams at Bloomberg.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.

Texas likely is removing Helen Keller from the curriculum

Here is the story, note that Hillary Clinton was removed as well and Billy Graham was added, at least on a preliminary vote.  Various historical figures were assessed for their relevance, and Helen Keller did not receive a high enough score.  Barbara Jordan, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Henry B. González — all figures from Texas history — made it through easily.  Dolores Huerta was added.

On Keller, here is some additional background:

In 1929 and again in 1938 she published books that both contained extended sections defending the Soviet Union—which she maintained was still a more or less democratic workers’ state—and praised the late Vladimir Lenin, whose great legacy rested on how he had helped to sow in Russia “the unshatterable seed of a new life for mankind.”

There is some chance the Texas decision will influence textbooks on a nationwide basis, because Texas is such a large market and publishers wish to market the same book nationally.

Keller should be kept because she is an impressive, focal, and easy to explain example of an individual who overcame disabilities and became prominent and influential.  At the margin, her radicalism is a reason to include her, not to exclude her.  Students should be encouraged to think of America as having had a diverse intellectual history, including radicalism.  That said, the same should hold for a variety of now-disgraced figures on the Right, provided of course that they have meritorious achievements worthy of note, and no this is not by definition impossible.

The first linked article claims that cutting Keller from the curriculum will save forty minutes.  Even if you don’t think Keller is worth exactly forty minutes, surely she is worth more than zero minutes, and besides the teacher simply can talk faster if need be (don’t most teachers talk too slowly?).

I don’t mind keeping the relatively obscure Texas figures in the social studies course of study.  If nothing else, it encourages young Texans to think of themselves as special and to resist assimilation into broader America, again to the benefit of diversity.

Addendum: Keller is a very good choice if you are playing Twenty Questions.  It is unlikely if someone will ask whether you are a famous person connected to the idea of disabilities.  And that reflects exactly why she should be kept in the curriculum.

Second addendum: Here are some other changes:

The board also voted to add back into the curriculum a reference to the “heroism” of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses’ influence on the writing of the founding documents, multiple references to “Judeo-Christian” values and a requirement that students explain how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East.

Barry Goldwater was removed as well, with Moses replacing Thomas Hobbes.  There will be a chance to overturn these decisions by a final vote in November.

Saturday assorted links

The seventeenth century was a special time in Britain

The apprentice dataset, which is richest and most reliable from 1580 to 1680, tells much the same story for the seventeenth century. As we expected, the underlying shares of apprentices’ parents in industry and services are higher than in the probate dataset, but the trends move in parallel. Agriculture declines consistently over this period. Industry and services both grow substantially, with services outstripping industry. Compared to the probate data, the share of the workforce in agriculture declines more quickly, while the rate of expansion in industry is somewhat slower in the first half of the seventeenth century, although it reaches a similar level by 1660–1679. The growth in services is similar to the probate dataset. This coherence between the results from two independent sources offers a first test of the validity of our findings.

That is from a newly published and important paper by Patrick Wallis, Justin Colson, and David Chilosi, “Structural Change and Economic Growth in the British Economy before the Industrial Revolution, 1500–1800.”

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Where did Swedish schooling go wrong?

Some parts of this paper seem a priori implausible to me, and I don’t think the abstract puts the best foot forward for the paper, but these are such important issues I wanted to pass along the new piece by Magnus Henrekson and Johan Wennström.  Here is the opener:

The Swedish school system suffers from profound problems with teacher recruitment and retention, knowledge decline,and grade inflation. Absenteeism is high, and psychiatric disorders have risen sharply among Swedish pupils in the last ten years. In this pioneering analysis of the consequences of combining institutionalized social constructivism with extensive marketization of education, we suggest that these problems regarding school quality are to no small extent a result of the Swedish school system’s unlikely combination of a postmodern view of truth and knowledge, the ensuing pedagogy of child-centered discovery, and market principles. Our study adds to the findings from previous attempts to study the effects of social-constructivist pedagogy in nonmarket contexts and yields the implication that caution is necessary for countries, notably the U.S., that have a tradition of social-constructivist practices in their education systems and are considering implementing or expanding market-based school reforms.

At the risk of sounding like Bryan Caplan, is schooling even effective enough for mistakes in method to be so fatal?

For the pointer to the paper I thank Daniel Klein.

*A Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life*

That is the new and excellent book by David Quammen, here is one summary excerpt:

We are not precisely who we thought we were.  We are composite creatures, and our ancestry seems to arise from a dark zone of the living world, a group of creatures about which science, until recent decades, was ignorant.  Evolution is tricker, far more intricate, than we had realized.  The tree of life is more tangled.  Genes don’t move just vertically.  they can also pass laterally across species boundaries, across wider gaps, even between different kingdoms of life, and some have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage — from unsuspected, nonprimate sources.  It’s the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or (different metaphor, preferred by some scientists) an infection that transforms identity.  “Infective heredity.”  I’ll say more about that in its place.

My favorite part of the book is the section, starting on p.244, on bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that have not yet been invented.  Overall this is likely to prove the best popular science book of the year, you can buy it here.  Here are various reviews of the book.

Friday assorted links

1. Thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days.  And: “There were disproportionally more hyperprolific authors in Malaysia (= 13) and Saudi Arabia (= 7), countries both known to incentivize publication with cash rewards.”  The link is interesting throughout, for instance: “One unexpected result was that some hyperprolific authors placed many publications in a single journal…Three authors have each published more than 600 articles in the former [journal] (Hoong-Kun Fun, Seik Weng Ng and Edward Tiekink); three authors have each published more than 400 papers in the latter (Karl Peters, Eva Maria Peters and Edward Tiekink).”  And further information here.

2. “Rwanda’s foreign direct investment portfolio hit the one billion dollar mark for the first time last year, beating its East African Community peers Kenya and Uganda for the first time.

3. MIE: “The Frying Pan Tower, a surplus Coast Guard Light Station, is located 34 miles off the coast of North Carolina and has been turned into a unique adventure bed & breakfast like no other and, NOW YOU CAN OWN IT!”

4. Toward a theory of newscaster hair.

5. How are zoning laws holding back American cities (video).

The crack culture that is Long Island, vending machine markets in everything

Suffolk County locals in New York’s Long Island are on alert in the wake of the appearance of three potential crack pipe vending machines, with authorities trying to find out who planted them.

The town of Brookhaven received complaints about the machines last weekend and two have been removed. One of the machines that was removed was partially destroyed by the community, according to WABC-TV.

The station reported that the machines featured the words “Sketch Pens” and were mounted in cement into the ground. It would dispense a small glass tube and a filter for $2 in the form of eight quarters.

The dispensers were initially reported to officials as merely pen dispensers as it was the first week of school in the community.

Here is the full story, via David C. and John C., more information here.

The incidence of tariffs on Chinese goods

…start-ups are likely to be hit hardest, whether their products are made in China or they import components and do the final assembly work in the US.

“Your resistor or diode is already costing you 10 times what you’d pay if you were Apple,” said Mr Kelly. Slapping a tariff on these higher prices will add to the pain, he said. Companies such as Brilliant face the extra challenge of trying to price their products in a way that will generate demand in new markets that have yet to establish themselves.

…breaking into the mass market usually involves cutting the price, something that is now much harder.


In the technology industry, hardware start-ups face some of the longest odds for success. Until they reach high enough volumes to strike better deals with suppliers and support the costs of brand marketing it is hard to make the economics work, and profit margins are notoriously low. “When you’re in hardware, a 25 per cent tariff can be a death knell to your business,” says Nate Kelly, a supply chain expert who now heads TrackR, a company that makes Bluetooth devices. The lack of a financial cushion or a diversified set of products means many companies will not be able to “ride this out for six months or a year”, he said.

And Mexico will gain, China will lose.  That is from Richard Waters at the FT.

Thursday assorted links

1. On EU internet filters.

2. Americans now find suicide more socially acceptable.

3. What predicts inter-caste marriage?: the education of the groom’s mother.  And note this: “Even in 2011, the rate of inter caste marriages in India was as low as 5.82%.”

4. Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg are launching a new audio company.

5. TED talk by philosopher William MacAskill on how best to help the world.

6. Teens are protesting in-class presentations.  ““Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted, asked to be referred to only by her first name.”